As is customary pretty much everywhere, when I was up for tenure at my university, my students were invited to participate in the process by completing a survey about their experiences with me as a teacher and advisor. Unsurprisingly, I found myself fielding a lot of questions about the process. My sense is that, for better or worse, the intricacies of academic hierarchy are opaque to most undergrads, and I don’t lose a lot of sleep over this. I huff and grumble privately when a student addresses me by my first name or, worse yet, as “Mrs. Adelman” but never reprimand them directly. I wager that exactly zero of them noticed when I changed the signature line of my email from “Assistant” to “Associate Professor.” Again: totally fine.
Nonetheless, the most interesting question anyone has ever asked me about the tenure process came from one of my students who asked, simply: “Why?” While it was still early days in my review process, the subject-formation mechanisms had been grinding away on me for years, and so I gave a brief procedural answer and then turned to things like “intellectual freedom” and commitment to the profession. The soundwaves from this exultation (delivered even while I was imagining how satisfying it would be to change my email signature, how many people would totally notice) had barely hit the back wall of the room, when she shook her head and waved her hand like a fly was bothering her. “No,” she said. “That’s not what I meant. Why do you have to go up for tenure? Why can’t you just stay an Assistant Professor forever if you want?”
I had never even considered the possibility. Of course, there are practical reasons to not stay an Assistant Professor forever (though I am still awaiting the landing of the heavenly chorus that I thought would surely sing once my tenure was official). And of course, I knew what would happen — institutionally, if not psychically — if I were denied tenure. And I knew that I had no choice but to go up. But it had never occurred to me to question the requirement itself, and when I’ve shared this anecdote with other professors, they’ve all expressed the same never-thought-of-that incredulity.
It’s an interesting question because it queries the value of the security and recognition that tenure afford. My hunch is that the student didn’t understand the implications of being tenure-less or the practical and professional reasons why one might desire it. But even bracketing this, her question is worth pausing over. Of course, I’m glad I have tenure, and I’m not forgetting for a minute that I’m super privileged to have the certainty and stability it affords. But as I fumbled with my student’s question, I realized that I had never really considered why I was going/putting myself through the tenure process, any more than I had wondered why I get older every year.
In the academic universe, we tend to conceptualize movement toward tenure as (ideally) ineluctable, which also envisions scholarly careers as linear and progressive. Even as many of us eschew the narrative of History-as-progress on a larger scale, I’d wager that most of us imagine our careers along such an inevitably upward-turning arc. But I’d also wager that few of them actually play out that way. For a variety of reasons, we might go months or even years without making much in the way of forward progress; we might choose to slow down or be compelled to. Priorities shift. Projects stall, collaborations fall apart, proposals get rejected, we are compelled to revise, resubmit, and wait. These things happen to everybody, but nonetheless, we instantiate constant and quantifiable progress as both norm and ideal of academic work. Indeed, even the prevailing metaphor of the tenure “clock” (stoppable only in the most extreme circumstances) replicates this logic.
My student’s question was therefore truly inconceivable, even apart from the institutional requirement, as a condition of my hire and employment, that I go up for tenure by a certain year. In effect, she was proposing a refusal of institutional mandates and expectations, or imagining a refusal of this compulsory pursuit of security. It’s an imperfect comparison, to be sure, but imagine how clear the answer would have seemed if the student had proposed opting out of other coveted and widely-valued forms of security or legitimacy like … marriage.
As mechanisms for subject-formation, institutions work by conditioning our assumptions and expectations, offering recognition and security in exchange for alignment with preferred forms of each. My student, howsoever unintentionally, hinted at an alternative to this arrangement, in which ‘progress’ or ‘success’ might be measured by a different metric, or maybe recognized differently, as chimeras after all.
My calendar is a masterpiece. I keep up on birthdays and pay my bills before they’re due and go to the doctor regularly and spend small fortunes on preventative maintenance. I’ve never been responsible for missing a flight.
I reckon that none of this would come as a surprise to people who know me at work. As a professor, I’m punctual and reliable. My classes begin and end at the appointed minutes. I generally respond to student emails within a day. I return graded papers promptly, and sometimes earlier than promised. During my short stint this semester as an interim department chair, I handily kept the proverbial trains (and most of the meetings) running on time.
But otherwise, I am so behind. When someone asks me how I am, “so behind” is an increasingly common answer (along with “fine” or “tired.”) This behind-ness is concentrated heavily in my research agenda. Of course, I meet deadlines in all but the most extraordinary circumstances, and sometimes even then. But I still have this sense of being off, of lagging, of inertia, of delay. Relative to what, I’m not sure. Maybe nothing. But it’s there, and insistent, nonetheless.
Admittedly, outside the realms of obligations and have-tos, I’m often running late. I text en route apologies for my tardiness. I scoot into the yoga studio moments before the teacher hangs the “class in progress” sign on the door. If restaurants and salons didn’t have grace periods on reservations and appointments, I’d have to do a lot of rescheduling.
But my experience of “behind” is different. “Late” is concrete and quantifiable. “Behind” is abstract. “Late” is preventable with basic adult skills like time management and learning from past mistakes. “Behind,” at least as I experience it, does not have a behavioral fix. Lateness is basically a function of the laws of time and space, of their constraints. Behindness, on the other hand, doesn’t have much to do with logic. Instead, it’s a backward-looking perception of all that I didn’t do, and should have done, while time passes, heedless of my agenda or efforts.
I’m not alone in this, I don’t think. My academic pals voice similar complaints. “I am totally caught up on everything,” said no academic, ever.
A couple of years ago, I read Sarah Sharma’s remarkable book, In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics. Sharma develops the idea of “power-chronography” to capture the saturating overlay of power onto time in the domains of labor, embodiment, and social life. It would be absurd to compare the work that I do to that of the taxi drivers, for example, that she studies extensively; my situation is much more comfortable, far less precarious. But all of the people that she describes in her book have jobs that vex their experiences of time.
Professor-ing has its own temporal idiosyncrasies. We get a lot of breaks and time “off,” but this also means that we make a lot of transitions. The interval between writing a thing and seeing it in print is yawning, and variable. Every semester, in the classroom, we start from scratch. Our workflows depend, in fundamental ways, on the whims of dozens of 18-year-olds. Set arbitrarily to a 5-to-7 year cycle, tenure clocks tick, or get stopped.
In various ways, academics talk a lot about our time. We extol the virtues of winter and summer breaks or sabbaticals, lament how fast they seem to go. We note, appreciatively, the relative flexibility in our schedules. We lament or humble-brag about how busy we are. We evaluate ‘work-life balance’ and our allocations to each side of the hyphen.
These are all relatively tangible things. “Behind,” on the other hand, is not. Experiencing oneself as “behind” is, I think, central to the temporal experience of academic work. It arises at the intersection of whatever psychic characteristics predispose us to pursuing this career and the practices of the institutions where we enact it. In my own life, it underpins writing guilt (because if I was working instead of enjoying myself, maybe I wouldn’t be so behind). It inspires me to say “yes” when I should probably say “no” or “not now” (because it’s more appealing to agree to a new project that I’m not behind on yet). It prevents me from appreciating what I do accomplish (because the focused effort required to finish one thing left me even more behind on everything else). And so “behind” perpetuates itself.
And I’m not sure what to do. I work to capacity most days, while still endeavoring to preserve a life that is tolerable and meaningful outside my office. So I think about those workplace renegades who, finding themselves hopelessly deluged with email, simply zero out their inboxes with a wild “Select All” and “Delete,” on the assumption that if there was anything important, the sender would write again. Theoretically, I could do the same thing with my calendar, tear out those old pages full of their undone to-dos. Clearly, none of them were absolutely essential or really time-sensitive, so I’m not sure what I’m holding on to. But somehow, I can’t bring myself to do it.
So I work suspended between my past expectations and hope, endlessly deferred, for a future in which everything is current, and I am always right on time.
So I happened to be in the car today, with the radio on, just as the day’s installment of Writer’s Almanac was winding down. I caught the very end of the featured poem, and Garrison Keillor’s signature closing: “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” And I was thinking about how much I love that advice, even though liking Garrison Keillor might be a little complicated, particularly as a way of framing a writing life.
I love that “be well” is first, how that placement intimates that being well is a precondition for doing good work. I love how there is no conjunction to modify the relationship between the first two instructions. It’s not “Be well, BUT do good work,” which would imply that there is an inherent or necessary incompatibility between these two aspirations. Despite what we often learn in graduate school: there isn’t. And if we act as though there is, one or the other thing will inevitably suffer, probably the first, because (at least in my experience) the to-do list is way more durable than the body. Relatedly, it’s not “Be well, OR do good work,” as if there is a trade-off. Neither is it “Be well, AND do good work,” which – to my mind, at least – would instrumentalize being well purely into the service of work, like “Be well, SO THAT YOU CAN do good work.” Just two simple imperatives, coexisting comfortably, with the space between them reminding us that sometimes being well requires taking some distance from doing good work.
“Keep in touch,” though, has always struck me as opaque. For a long time, I assumed that G.K. was inviting me, all of us, really, to keep in touch with him. In retrospect, probably not. But the absence of an object is puzzling. Even when he explains this signature line, G.K. doesn’t mention this last bit. Keep in touch with whom? Or what? Maybe the answer is anybody, or anything. Maybe: after you’ve taken care of yourself, after you’ve done your good work, maybe look up, and around, and see what, or who else needs your attention, and invest judiciously enough in the doing of your good work that you have something left for whoever, or whatever, that might be.